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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 15:48 GMT
Crackdown on mass-marketing scams
Man at computer
The internet is driving scams
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has launched a campaign to warn about the dangers of mass-marketing scams.

It says they are a serious and growing problem, partly due to the wide-spread popularity of the internet.

The OFT estimates that scams such as bogus competitions, lotteries, clairvoyants and pyramid schemes cost UK consumers at least 1bn a year.

"Scams steal money from the legitimate economy"," said OFT chief executive John Fingleton.

"They are scheming, crafty, aggressive and malicious, and five million people in the UK have been victims," he said.

New scams

The number of scams being operated by criminals is proliferating.

Among recent ones have been offers to sell the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to combat bird flu, a bogus charity asking for money to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the USA, and bogus parcel delivery services that demand money before someone can collect their parcel.

Mr Fingleton emphasised the extent to which the internet had made things easier for fraudsters: "It is a new means of reaching consumers with age-old scams.

"A million e-mail addresses can be bought for five dollars and that is a lot cheaper than sending a mail-shot to a million people" he said.

High profile campaign

The one-month long campaign will run throughout February and focus on warning the public about mass-marketing schemes.

Advance fee frauds
Pyramid schemes
Working from home schemes
General investment

Its main aim will be to give consumers knowledge that will enable them to spot scams and to encourage people to report them to the authorities.

"Scams would be much less profitable if people were more sceptical," said a senior OFT enforcement official.

The campaign will feature leaflets on how to spot a scam, alongside radio advertising and adverts on the internet.

It follows a similar campaign last year, which saw the OFT receive hundreds of letters from members of the public who had been conned by scammers.

International action

Educating the public is just one part of the OFT's efforts.

scams would be much less profitable if people were more sceptical
Mike Haley, OFT

The OFT will also carry out a sweep of the internet internationally to identify, as part of this campaign, bogus home working scams.

This will involve the co-operation of internet service providers, who will be asked to take scammers offline as well as to identify foreign spam gangs to see where they are operating from.

But Mike Haley says it is a myth that all such scams originate with criminals abroad.

Some are in fact very home grown.

"Some of the investigations we have started recently pointed to the fact that these organised gangs can be students who have learned from somebody else and could be at university."

The government is currently consulting on how to implement a European Union directive on unfair commercial practices.

Among other things, this will automatically define pyramid selling schemes as unfair in all circumstances, relieving the authorities of having to prove that each one is misleading.

Also, the government will give an extra 3m to local authority trading standards offices to set up dedicated scam busting teams.

The OFT's Consumer Direct telephone helpline will be extended to all areas of the UK so that people can ring it for advice if they suspect they are being targeted by a scam.

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